how to manage crisis

Managing and Leading in Crisis

Managing and Leading in Crises
by Terrence E. Simon. Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Business Administration

In the last two decades, the world has experienced myriad natural and man-made disasters including 9/11 and other terrorist attacks, tsunamis in Asia, Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill, and now the COVID-19 pandemic. With each new situation, managers and leaders face unique challenges and, hopefully, learn critical lessons. Whether dealing with wildfires, hurricanes, floods, snowstorms, or tornadoes, they must develop skills specific to each crisis. The potential loss of lives, damage to infrastructure, and disruption of essential services are too great to be ignored in the context of globalization.

Crises test the competency of those at the forefront of organizations and challenge their legitimacy. These emergencies unearth an abundance of “fair-weather” leaders, but few with the critically needed abilities to think strategically and nonlinearly and to anticipate the unexpected. Managing complexity on the “edge of chaos” requires a special skill set of organizational learning, learning to learn, and surprise management capacity.

Proponents of chaos theory have long argued that managing and leading during and after a crisis are based on two paradigms: first, that managers and leaders are rational and quasi-mechanistic, and, second, that they can cope with the unexpected and disorderly. Juxtaposed, these seemingly opposing views can be reconciled by focusing on key competencies such as adaptability, stability, correcting disorder, goal attainment, and communication in crises.
What distinguishes fair-weather crisis managers and leaders from effective ones is the ability to imagine boldly, think unconventionally, and accomplish the unreasonable. Policy solutions require innovative, dynamic managers and leaders who are prepared to make decisions using centralized, yet flexible command structures to stay on top of crises as they unfold.

Chaotic situations also bring to the forefront “fantasy documents,” in which experts claim to control uncontrollable disasters or where the knowledge necessary to create viable plans is unavailable. Hence, planning for these catastrophes is merely symbolical and represents something other than a real capability. Even though fantasy documents may not present effective solutions, we can use these worst-case scenarios to become smarter about how the world works.

And this brings me to the novel COVID-19 pandemic. In this complex world of uncertainties and randomness, the outbreak has world leaders scrambling for solutions to the catastrophic breakdown of systems and the inadequacies of institutions to deal with the public health nightmare. While it is premature to assess the political, economic, socio-cultural, and technological impacts, we may be able to predict the new beliefs on how managers and leaders should be proactive in crisis management. There is an adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” In these times, crisis managers and leaders will have to hone a set of skills that allow them to keep on “breaking” and “fixing” as they seek to stay on top of chaotic situations.

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